Ride the French Railways with Mark Twain

Ride with Mark Twain on the French Railways and see them only as Twain could see them.

We have come five hundred miles by French railways through the heart of France. What a bewitching land it is! What a garden! Surely the leagues of bright green lawns are swept and brushed and watered every day and their grasses trimmed by the barber. Surely the hedges are shaped and measured and their symmetry preserved by the most architectural of gardeners. Surely the long straight rows of stately poplars that divide the beautiful landscape like the squares of a checker-board are set with line and plummet, and their uniform height determined with a spirit level.

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Surely the straight, smooth, pure white turnpikes are jack-planed and sandpapered every day. How else are these marvels of symmetry, cleanliness, and order attained? It is wonderful. There are no unsightly stone walls and never a fence of any kind. There is no dirt, no decay, no rubbish anywhere--nothing that even hints at untidiness --nothing that ever suggests neglect.

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All is orderly and beautiful--every thing is charming to the eye. We had such glimpses of the Rhone gliding along between its grassy banks; of cosy cottages buried in flowers and shrubbery; of quaint old red-tiled villages with mossy medieval cathedrals looming out of their midst; of wooded hills with ivy-grown towers and turrets of feudal castles projecting above the foliage; such glimpses of Paradise, it seemed to us, such visions of fabled fairyland!

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We knew then what the poet meant when he sang of: "--thy cornfieldsgreen, and sunny vines, O pleasant land of France!"

And it is a pleasant land. No word describes it so felicitously as thatone. They say there is no word for "home" in the French language. Well,considering that they have the article itself in such an attractiveaspect, they ought to manage to get along without the word. Let us notwaste too much pity on "homeless" France. I have observed that Frenchmenabroad seldom wholly give up the idea of going back to France some timeor other. I am not surprised at it now.

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We are not infatuated with these French railways, though. We tookfirst-class passage on the French Railways, not because we wished to attract attention by doinga thing which is uncommon in Europe but because we could make our journeyquicker by so doing.

It is hard to make railroading pleasant in anycountry. It is too tedious.

Stagecoaching is infinitely moredelightful. Once I crossed the plains and deserts and mountains of theWest in a stagecoach, from the Missouri line to California, and sincethen all my pleasure trips must be measured to that rare holiday frolic.Two thousand miles of ceaseless rush and rattle and clatter, by night andby day, and never a weary moment, never a lapse of interest! The firstseven hundred miles a level continent, its grassy carpet greener andsofter and smoother than any sea and figured with designs fitted to itsmagnitude--the shadows of the clouds. Here were no scenes but summerscenes, and no disposition inspired by them but to lie at full length onthe mail sacks in the grateful breeze and dreamily smoke the pipe ofpeace--what other, where all was repose and contentment? In coolmornings, before the sun was fairly up, it was worth a lifetime of citytoiling and moiling to perch in the foretop with the driver and see thesix mustangs scamper under the sharp snapping of the whip that nevertouched them; to scan the blue distances of a world that knew no lordsbut us; to cleave the wind with uncovered head and feel the sluggishpulses rousing to the spirit of a speed that pretended to the resistlessrush of a typhoon! Then thirteen hundred miles of desert solitudes; oflimitless panoramas of bewildering perspective; of mimic cities, ofpinnacled cathedrals, of massive fortresses, counterfeited in the eternalrocks and splendid with the crimson and gold of the setting sun; of dizzyaltitudes among fog-wreathed peaks and never-melting snows, wherethunders and lightnings and tempests warred magnificently at our feet andthe storm clouds above swung their shredded banners in our very faces!

But I forgot.

I am in elegant France now on the French railways, and not scurrying through thegreat South Pass and the Wind River Mountains, among antelopes andbuffaloes and painted Indians on the warpath.

It is not meet that Ishould make too disparaging comparisons between humdrum travel on a railway and that royal summer flight across a continent in a stagecoach.

I meant in the beginning to say that railway journeying is tedious andtiresome, and so it is--though at the time I was thinking particularly ofa dismal fifty-hour pilgrimage between New York and St. Louis. Of courseour trip through France on the French railways was not really tedious because all its scenes andexperiences were new and strange; but as Dan says, it had its"discrepancies."

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The cars of the French railways are built in compartments that hold eight persons each. Eachcompartment is partially subdivided, and so there are two tolerablydistinct parties of four in it. Four face the other four. The seats andbacks are thickly padded and cushioned and are very comfortable; you cansmoke if you wish; there are no bothersome peddlers; you are saved theinfliction of a multitude of disagreeable fellow passengers.

So far, sowell. But then the conductor locks you in on the French railways car when the train starts; thereis no water to drink in the car; there is no heating apparatus for nighttravel; if a drunken rowdy should get in, you could not remove a matterof twenty seats from him or enter another car; but above all, if you areworn out and must sleep, you must sit up and do it in naps, with crampedlegs and in a torturing misery that leaves you withered and lifeless thenext day--for behold they have not that culmination of all charity andhuman kindness, a sleeping car, in all France on the French railways. I prefer the Americansystem. It has not so many grievous "discrepancies."

In the French railways, all is clockwork, all is order. They make no mistakes. Everythird man wears a uniform, and whether he be a marshal of the empire or abrakeman, he is ready and perfectly willing to answer all your questionswith tireless politeness, ready to tell you which car to take, yea, andready to go and put you into it to make sure that you shall not goastray. You cannot pass into the waiting room of the depot till you havesecured your ticket, and you cannot pass from its only exit till thetrain is at its threshold to receive you.

Once on board the French railways, the train willnot start till your ticket has been examined--till every passenger'sticket has been inspected. This is chiefly for your own good. If by anypossibility you have managed to take the wrong train on the French railways, you will be handedover to a polite official who will take you whither you belong and bestowyou with many an affable bow.

Your ticket will be inspected every nowand then along the route, and when it is time to change cars you willknow it.

You are in the hands of officials who zealously study yourwelfare and your interest, instead of turning their talents to theinvention of new methods of discommoding and snubbing you, as is veryoften the main employment of that exceedingly self-satisfied monarch, therailroad conductor of America.

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But the happiest regulation in French railways government is--thirtyminutes to dinner! No five-minute boltings of flabby rolls, muddycoffee, questionable eggs, gutta-percha beef, and pies whose conceptionand execution are a dark and bloody mystery to all save the cook thatcreated them! No, we sat calmly down--it was in old Dijon, which is soeasy to spell and so impossible to pronounce except when you civilize itand call it Demijohn--and poured out rich Burgundian wines and munchedcalmly through a long table d'hote bill of fare, snail patties, deliciousfruits and all, then paid the trifle it cost and stepped happily aboardthe train again, without once cursing the French railways company.

A rareexperience and one to be treasured forever.

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They say they do not have accidents on these French railways, and I think itmust be true. If I remember rightly, we passed high above wagon roads orthrough tunnels under them, but never crossed them on their own level.

About every quarter of a mile, it seemed to me, a man came out and heldup a club till the French railways went by, to signify that everything was safeahead. Switches were changed a mile in advance by pulling a wire ropethat passed along the ground by the French railways, from station to station.Signals for the day and signals for the night gave constant and timelynotice of the position of switches.

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No, they have no French railways accidents to speak of in France. But why?Because when one occurs, somebody has to hang for it! Not hang, maybe,but be punished at least with such vigor of emphasis as to makenegligence a thing to be shuddered at by French railways officials for many aday thereafter. "No blame attached to the officers"--that lying anddisaster-breeding verdict so common to our softhearted juries is seldomrendered in France. If the trouble occurred in the conductor'sdepartment, that officer must suffer if his subordinate cannot be provenguilty; if in the engineer's department and the case be similar, theengineer must answer.

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The Old Travelers--those delightful parrots who have "been here before"and know more about the country than Louis Napoleon knows now or everwill know--tell us these things, and we believe them because they arepleasant things to believe and because they are plausible and savor ofthe rigid subjection to law and order which we behold about useverywhere.

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But we love the Old Travelers. We love to hear them prate and drivel andlie. We can tell them the moment we see them. They always throw out afew feelers; they never cast themselves adrift till they have soundedevery individual and know that he has not traveled. Then they open theirthrottle valves, and how they do brag, and sneer, and swell, and soar,and blaspheme the sacred name of Truth!

Their central idea, their grandaim, is to subjugate you, keep you down, make you feel insignificant andhumble in the blaze of their cosmopolitan glory! They will not let youknow anything. They sneer at your most inoffensive suggestions; theylaugh unfeelingly at your treasured dreams of foreign lands; they brandthe statements of your traveled aunts and uncles as the stupidestabsurdities; they deride your most trusted authors and demolish the fairimages they have set up for your willing worship with the pitilessferocity of the fanatic iconoclast!

But still I love the Old Travelers.

I love them for their witless platitudes, for their supernatural abilityto bore, for their delightful asinine vanity, for their luxuriantfertility of imagination, for their startling, their brilliant, theiroverwhelming mendacity!

By Lyons and the Saone (where we saw the lady of Lyons and thought littleof her comeliness), by Villa Franca, Tonnere, venerable Sens, Melun,Fontainebleau, and scores of other beautiful cities, we swept, alwaysnoting the absence of hog-wallows, broken fences, cow lots, unpaintedhouses, and mud, and always noting, as well, the presence of cleanliness,grace, taste in adorning and beautifying, even to the disposition of atree or the turning of a hedge, the marvel of roads in perfect repair,void of ruts and guiltless of even an inequality of surface--we bowledalong, hour after hour, that brilliant summer day, and as nightfallapproached we entered a wilderness of odorous flowers and shrubbery, spedthrough it, and then, excited, delighted, and half persuaded that we wereonly the sport of a beautiful dream, lo, we stood in magnificent Paris!

Go to Mark Twain's main page after French Railways.

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